The norm for most of the time humanity has existed on this planet has been one of repeated famine. As Malthus pointed out, this meant that the human population was destined to a certain limit, because when populations increased – as they did – renewed famines would always impose an even higher toll.
Precise world-wide figures until recent centuries are lost. But here is an indication of the norm:
- In France, 26 major famines occurred in the 11th century, 2 in the 12th, 4 in the 14th, 7 in the 15th, 13 in 16th, 11 in the 17th, 16 in the 18th century. People resorted to grass and ground tree bark as staple foods. Cannibalism was not unknown.
- The world population increased from 1/4 billion people to 1 billion in the 800 years between 1000 and 1800 A.D
Then in the next 100 years world population leapt to 1.6 billion; even more dramatically by 1927, it had reached 2 billion. Today the world population is 7.4 billion. Why are we not starving as we were before?
The change began in the 18th century. Farmers began to get individual property rights. They were not tied to the land and landowners no longer dictated what, when, and how much they planted. At the same time, as borders opened to international trade, regions began to specialize in growing crops best suited to their soil, climate and skills.
Also in the 18th century, democratic governments began to develop in America and Europe. Interestingly, famines no longer occur in democracies in the world today. Rulers depend on votes and so make every possible effort to avoid their starvation. And a free media helps increase public awareness. Malnutrition and even severe levels of starvation, on the other hand, continue to occur in many authoritarian and Communist countries where agricultural workers were – and sometimes still are – under the control of government leaders for whom the lives of its citizens are expendable.
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the value of individual freedoms comes from China. As a result of “the Great Leap Forward” beginning in 1958 under Mao Zedong during which farms were made into collectives and agricultural workers deemed excessive to farming needs were forced into industrialization projects, 40 million people died of starvation and life expectancy collapsed by 20 years. In 1978, 18 families in a small village met in secret one night and agreed to make their own decisions on what and how to farm an allotted parcel of their communal farm land. The agreement was written down and fingerprinted. They knew that if the government found out, they would be severely punished. In the first year, the village produced 6 times more grain than it did under the collective regime. The secret of their success in feeding themselves got out and eventually reached government officials. Everybody expected drastic punishment. The leader of the project hid in a bamboo shoot in the roof of his house.
But this grassroots reform was incredibly popular and amazingly, the government realized this. In 1982, just four years after the first village night gathering, the Communist party endorsed the reforms. Within two years, all the collectives in China had been abandoned. Within just 20 years after the worst famine in its history, China began to produce surplus food for world markets.
In addition to social and political change, several dramatic agricultural technologies began to kick in in the 20th century. The first was the development of artificial fertilizer, particularly nitrogen. The productivity per field burgeoned. The second technology has been the introduction of tractors to plant and harvest crops. 150 years ago it took 25 men all day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain. Today one man or woman on a tractor does it in 6 minutes.
Finally, there has been the development of genetically engineered crops. After working with thousands of crossings, the biologist Norman Borlaug developed a parasite-resistant wheat which was not sensitive to daylight hours. In addition, it was a dwarf variety which did not expend its energy growing inedible stalks. Borlaug introduced his wheat in Mexico in 1963. Amazingly, the harvest was six times larger than 20 years earlier. Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. Several years later Borlaug introduced his seeds to India and Pakistan. Within several years, these two countries were self-sufficient in the production of cereals.
When he was given the Nobel prize in 1970, Borlaug was credited with saving 12 million square miles of forest, preserving the lives of wild creatures and plants living there. He is probably the first person in history to save a billion human lives.
So is everything honky-dory now? Have we cracked the nut and if we continue to do what has worked so well, will humanity soon have eliminated the scourge of malnutrition worldwide?
Would you believe me if I said yes? Well, don’t believe it. The next post is about some of the problems we still face and that even our incredible solutions have themselves produced.